Culture shock is more than just differences between where you’re from and where you arrived. It has its origins in our childhood environment, in the social groups we’ve been surrounded by and a part of, in our everyday life that we have been leading until the moment of moving abroad.
As an introduction to the culture shock topic I’d like to share a more psychological approach to understanding where it comes from. Over a couple of articles (about honeymoon, frustration, adaptation stages) I’ll be sharing some more ideas of describing the culture shock and my experiences with this ‘it-which-must-not-be-named’ phenomenon. Let’s talk about the nice times and the tough times and try to understand where they may derive from. If you’re like me and you really want to try understanding where some of your unwanted emotions or behaviours come from and make the effort to work on your attitudes, you might benefit from reading my articles. Understanding and accepting are the first steps to a successful change!
You might have heard about the iceberg metaphor before as it can be used to describe numerous multi-dimensional concepts. It has also been widely used to talk about the concept of culture or in coaching to help people understand their behaviours and find the best ways forward. The main point is that what you see in behaviours is not the whole picture, it is driven by various values and attitudes that are under the surface. So in the context of culture, it would mean that the behaviours you notice in people from various cultures can’t be judged just as they are without any relation to where they derive from. And to be honest, I don’t think there is anything really fundamentally wrong with this metaphor. It puts vague concepts in a more tangible framework that is just much easier to grasp.
But because I personally am in favour of thinking forward in terms of development and growth, instead of using a metaphor with a fixed piece of ice I’d rather use a metaphor of a tree to talk about how where we come from influences our experiences abroad.
The tree is a living thing. When it’s small and is just being planted the roots are thin and weak, the trunk is also thin, the whole tree is small and vulnerable. At the beginning it is easy to pull out of the ground and plant somewhere else and it will grow well in that new place.
As it keeps growing the roots start to grow deeper and wider, become more attached to the ground, they get stronger and harder to replant. It grows the branches and leaves, it blossoms, it feels safe, it knows when it will rain, it knows that this is its place, its ground.
What would happen if someone was persistent enough to actually dig out the tree with the roots and try to plant it somewhere else, expecting it to grow equally well and healthy?
The tree would be resisting, it would hold its roots on to the ground very hard. If the person actually managed to replant the tree, it would maybe stop its growth for a while (it’s not THE ground. It’s not THE place. It’s not THE home.). Maybe it would stop blossoming forever and would just sadly stand there with its old roots in the new ground waiting for someone to cut it and make new furniture out of it.
Or maybe it would see the opportunity to grow even bigger in this new place and adjust the roots to the new ground, adjust to the new weather conditions, try to fit in the new scenery by growing new and better leaves or flowers.
Which of the two trees would you be if you were moved to a new place?
Would you stand sadly in one place, remembering the memories from your old home and putting yourself down? Or would you get over the loss and try to adjust to the new home by exploring the opportunities, checking the ground, fighting the stones which block your way to growing new roots?
What’s behind the culture shock?
Culture shock is more than just the country you’re from. It is of course connected, but you need to understand which aspects of the environment you were brought up in, which people you spent time with, what social aspects of your life have made you the person you are now.
Following the tree metaphor, before actually moving abroad it’s worth understanding what roots (beliefs, attitudes, values, worldview) you are holding, what ground (communication style, social rules) do your roots fit and were always surrounded by, what kind of branches and leaves (holidays, customs, arts, language) are you growing.
When you know all of the above, it’s easier to recognize the discrepancies between what you think is ‘right’ or ‘weird’ or ‘funny’ versus what you see in the new country after you’ve just moved.
Let me give you one of my examples. When I moved from Poland to the UK it was really difficult for me to address senior directors by their first name. They were (and should I say still are?) usually quite a few years older than me, had muuuuuch more experience, were soooo much smarter and mature than I was. How the hell I can call them by their first name? I couldn’t quite get it, couldn’t make myself to feel ok with it until I actually sat down and thought Right, why the hell I find it so difficult to deal with it? What’s the big deal?? .Well, the big deal is the environment I was brought up in. Distance to authority is quite a big deal in Poland, very well reflected also in the Polish language. Similar to for example French, we do have two forms of addressing people, one for informal relations (Polish: Ty; French: Tu) and one for more formal ones (Polish: Pan/Pani; French: Vous). So when you know someone well and in case of work they are more or less on the same level as you are, you can address them directly and call them by the first name. If you don’t know them at all or they are more senior than you are, you’d usually start by addressing them Miss Anna, Sir Marc . It sounds so weird in English! I guess if you want to be more formal, you use the surname here, so Miss Smith, Mister Jones. (Polish: Pani Ania, Pan Marek). You can read more about how that affects the decision making processes in the Culture Map series.
Anyway, back to the topic. So when I realised that the reason for my feeling weird was related to my values – I felt that I don’t respect those people enough when addressing them directly – it was easier for me to move on. Since then, I managed to adjust my thinking to functioning in this English-speaking environment. I’m no longer uncomfortable with this when speaking English. It almost feels like my values, or at least attitudes, shift when speaking different languages (how weird is that?!?).
What were your uncomfortable situations which you experienced when moving abroad? How do you think they were related to your core created throughout the years of living in your home country (countries)?
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